1. Let's start with the positives. I know it's been a bad football season in Ann Arbor, but what are the strengths of this year's Michigan squad, and will you be able to take away anything good from this season?
So I guess you want to begin with the shorter answers and build our way from there? Works for me!
There's really only one area of strength for Michigan this season: run defense. The Wolverines are ranked second among Big Ten teams in most key rushing defense statistics. They're second in the conference in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.06) and sack-exempted rushing yards allowed per carry (3.87), trailing only Penn State, which may just have the nation's best run defense. Michigan has had this sort of success because its defensive tackles, Willie Henry and Graham Glasgow, have done a splendid job of either shedding blocks when the running back approaches the line of scrimmage or consuming blocks and allowing the linebackers to become free hitters in the gaps. Accordingly, Michigan has held four of the six Power 5 schools it has faced to fewer than 2.50 yards per carry and none over five.
However, this does not mean that Michigan's run defense is immune to breakdowns. The two teams that have had the most success running the football against Michigan have been Minnesota and Michigan State. They share a trait in that both love to pound the ball and wear down the defense. This is what happened to the Wolverines in both games as David Cobb and Jeremy Langford were able to run for 183 and 177 yards, respectively, against Michigan. Will Indiana put up the same numbers? I am not sure. Stylistically, Indiana's ground attack is not in the same category as Minnesota and Michigan State. But Indiana has Tevin Coleman, which may be the trump card.
And there's very little good that can be taken away from this season. While Michigan was not expected to contend for a Big Ten championship, eight to nine wins were expected from a team that, on paper, looked stocked with Brady Hoke's talented recruits. Yet this season has been an unmitigated disaster whether you look at the team's record, the underachieving performances from almost every position group, the constant mismanagement of players and games from Hoke and his staff, and the public-relations blunders that seem to pop up every week. If there's one good thing that can be taken from this season, it's that we learned that Hoke and Dave Brandon should not be Michigan's head football coach and athletic director, respectively, anymore.
2. Devin Gardner has looked inconsistent at best as Michigan's starter, but last season he torched Indiana's defense for over 500 yards in a rollicking 63-47 victory over the Hoosiers (a game that I road-tripped up to Ann Arbor for). Is there a chance he could do it again this year, and what have been the causes of his struggles?
No. It doesn't matter that Indiana once again has one of the worst pass defenses in the Big Ten. This is not the same Michigan offense you witnessed last season. Under former offensive coordinator Al Borges, Michigan may have had an offense with little congruity, but Borges still had a penchant for finding big plays through the air. In 2013, Michigan had 29 passes that went for at least 25 yards, seven of which were against the Hoosiers. Through eight games in 2014 under new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, Michigan's had only 10 passes gain at least 25 yards, only one for at least 40 yards, and zero for at least 50 yards. Even though Michigan has a future NFL first-round draft pick at its disposal in wide receiver Devin Funchess, Nussmeier has stayed away from calling long-developing passes, worrying that the offensive line will not provide Gardner the requisite protection. Instead, Nussmeier has relied on shorter routes, but, other than Funchess and Dennis Norfleet, Michigan doesn't have the athleticism at receiver to break quick throws into long gains.
And this is not the same Devin Gardner either. Last season, Gardner had one of the most productive seasons ever for a Michigan quarterback behind arguably the nation's worst offensive line. Therefore, it was reasonable for Michigan fans to expect that Gardner would produce at a similar level this season, even if the offensive line was still subpar. Yet this has been far from the case. Gardner has regressed significantly due to what some, including myself, have dubbed as "David Carr Syndrome." This is the term we're using to describe a good quarterback who has been mentally broken due to the constant brutality he has endured in the pocket. He no longer seems to be confident when he drops back, always fearing that the pass rush is about to bear down on him, which has exacerbated his issues with his vision and footwork. Consequently, Gardner tends to make poor reads, even sometimes missing wide-open receivers, and throw inaccurate balls, which is why his interception rate is an atrocious 5.75 percent.
I'll end with this: Michigan hasn't had an individual quarterback throw for over 200 yards in its last nine games, dating back to last season. This streak may snap against Indiana's secondary. But another 500-yard explosion? Nah.
3. Michigan still has a pretty decent defense despite its offensive woes. Aside from LB Jake Ryan, what other Wolverine defenders should the Hoosiers watch out for?
In addition to Jake Ryan, there are four Michigan defenders that Indiana should watch out for. I already mentioned two of them above: Willie Henry and Graham Glasgow. Both are very adept at eating up blockers in the interior and stuffing the run. To the untrained eye, Henry will be more noticeable because he is bigger, generates more push into the backfield, and has more of an impact rushing the passer. But, although Glasgow will not be a threat to sack Zander Diamont, he still will play a vital role in containing Tevin Coleman.
The third is weak-side defensive end Frank Clark, who's actually Michigan's best defensive lineman, not Henry or Glasgow. Clark's tied for sixth in the Big Ten with 9.5 tackles-for-loss, including 7.5 in his last five games. Don't let his 2.5 sacks fool you either because he's Michigan's most disruptive pass rusher. Clark's the only Wolverine that can consistently beat an offensive lineman one-on-one and pressure the quarterback without needing to blitz or stunt. He's been a split-second away from adding at least another four sacks to his total, but the quick-passing schemes earlier opponents utilized prevented him from making a bigger impact on the box score. Clark will be the defensive lineman that Indiana's big uglies will worry about the most.
And the fourth is field corner Jourdan Lewis. Despite Michigan returning corners Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, who combined for 10 interceptions last season, the sophomore Lewis undoubtedly has been Michigan's best cornerback this season. He seems to really have taken to Michigan's schematic shift from soft zone coverage to more man press. He's demonstrated excellent technique jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and bumping them off their route towards the sideline. And it does not hurt that he has the athleticism to recover quickly when he's been beaten. One weakness he has is his ability to locate and make a play on the ball in the air, but even that has seen improvement as the year has progressed. Lewis seems to be on his way to becoming one of the best corners in the Big Ten, so it would be in Indiana's best interest to throw to the other side of the field on Saturday.
4. Dave Brandon has rightfully angered many Michigan fans recently for his actions (or inaction) as AD. Do you think the fan base would still be extending the same amount of vitriol towards Brandon if the football team was winning more regularly?
The same amount? No. But let's not pretend like it'd be all sunshine and rainbows if Michigan football was not about to have a losing record in the fourth year under a head coach that Dave Brandon hired. The anger runs much deeper.
Brandon, as the former CEO of Domino's Pizza, came to Ann Arbor almost five years ago with his marketing "acumen" and a goal to renovate Michigan's "brand." One of his favorite catchphrases: "If it ain't broke, break it." So that's what Brandon did: he broke it by attempting to modernize the culture of Michigan athletics. While some changes were met with praise, such as the debut of night games at Michigan Stadium and the honoring of "legends" numbers, his corporatization of Michigan football has been resisted at almost every turn. Brandon has increased ticket and concession prices to the point where a once-legendary waiting list for season tickets has been whittled down to nothing. He priced out the students, making their season tickets the most expensive in the Big Ten, which, in addition to shifting to an awful general-admissions seating policy that lasted only for the 2013 season, caused student ticket sales to plummet from 19,000 in 2013 to 12,000 in 2014. Despite Michigan having one of the best uniforms in college football, he's rolled out six different sets of alternates since 2011. He continues to pipe in music over the PA system, drowning out the beloved Michigan Marching Band. Michigan fans are worried that Brandon is turning Michigan Stadium into [Generic Corporate Sponsor] Stadium that can be found in any NFL city outside of Green Bay -- home to in-stadium advertisements, billboards, and, God forbid, a mascot. His corporatization of Michigan is eroding away at the values and traits that make Michigan so special and so unique to students, alumni, and fans.
The complaints don't stop there either. There are also the public-relations blunders, which happen over and over and over again. When a potential public-relations crisis may arise, Brandon always seems to call the same play: (1) make a decision; (2) measure the reaction to said decision; (3) if the reaction is negative and the decision can be covered up, cover it up; and (4) if the decision cannot be covered up or the cover-up is, well, uncovered, apologize and repair the situation. This happened with more trivial issues like his initial decision not to send the Michigan Marching Band to Dallas for the 2012 Cowboys Classic versus Alabama, his lie that the Michigan athletic department did not pay a skywriter to spell "Go Blue" over Spartan Stadium on a Saturday last fall, or the Coca-Cola promotion that essentially handed out free tickets for the Minnesota game earlier this season. There have been other similar incidents as well, and another such situation is currently developing with MGoBlog's recent report that Brandon has been responding to Michigan fans with condescending emails, telling them "we will be fine without you," to "find a new team to support," and "quit drinking and go to bed." These incidents are unfortunate but ultimately forgivable.
What is not forgivable is that Brandon called this same play when Michigan apparently hid that Brendan Gibbons did not play in the final two games last season because he had been expelled for sexual misconduct and when Michigan initially insisted that Brady Hoke and his staff did not err in allowing Shane Morris to play with what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms against Minnesota. Brandon and the Michigan athletic department needed to be forthright, transparent, and open with public. They needed to announce that Gibbons did not play because he had been expelled for reasons they could not disclose, not because he was dealing with a "family issue." They needed to announce immediately after the Minnesota game that they were reviewing whether proper protocols were followed in allowing Morris to re-enter that contest. Instead, Brandon and the department tried to cover up their tracks. Yet, they failed both times, bringing shame and embarrassment upon themselves while tarnishing the university's image.
Enough is enough, whether or not Michigan football has been winning.
5. With a 4-10 record in his last 14 games, Brady Hoke is likely not long for the Michigan head coaching position. Let's assume Hoke is done after this season. If so, who would be your top choice(s) to replace him right now?
Initially, I had been of the mindset that I would not discuss potential coaching candidates to replace Brady Hoke until it was official that Michigan had terminated him. However, given that Hoke's fate has been sealed after this most recent humiliating loss to in-state rival Michigan State, I have changed my mind. Here are my top-five choices to replace Hoke:
5. Les Miles, head coach, LSU: You may be surprised that Miles is this low given his connections to Michigan and his championship success at LSU. But the reasoning for this rank is pretty simple: Miles will turn 61 years old next week. Does Michigan really want to hire a coach, who is considered to be one of the wackiest in the nation, that is on the back side of his career? How many more years does Miles plan to coach? Does he have another decade in him? Will Miles have the same intensity and energy that he had the past decade? And, given Michigan's current struggles on offense, does Michigan want to to hire a head coach that has had trouble fielding a competent offense year in and year out? On the surface, this may seem like a home-run hire. Deep down, though, there are lots of issues.
4. Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State: I would much rather Michigan take a risk on a coach that may be too young than one that may be too old. Herman is only 39 years old, but he may be one of the hottest coaching candidates in college football in a few seasons. Herman's track record was so impressive that, in 2012, when Urban Meyer returned from early "retirement," he handpicked Herman to be his offensive coordinator at Ohio State. Meyer undoubtedly is an offensive guru, so his decision to hire Herman says quite a bit. In the past three seasons, Herman has called an offense that's been one of the best in the nation, even with a redshirt freshman quarterback in J.T. Barrett this year. And the cherry on top is that Herman is an ace recruiter. If Michigan decided to pull the trigger and take this risk, they may be hiring one of college football's best coaches for the next two decades before anyone else realized it.
3. Mike Gundy, head coach, Oklahoma State: Gundy is not 40 years old anymore, but he is only 47. And he's here because there are not many other youngish head coaches with a similar track record. This is his 10th season at Oklahoma State, where he has cemented himself as one of the better coaches in college football. He has built the Cowboys into a perennial Big 12 contender as they have registered at least eight wins in each of the last six seasons and at least nine wins in five of them. He would bring some consistency to Michigan's program that the Wolverines desperately need. Additionally, his expertise as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach would solve many of Michigan's problems. However, I doubt Gundy would leave Stillwater and T. Boone Pickens' deep pockets, but I have him here because there are few bonafide head coaches that Michigan can realistically hire. You could slot Kevin Sumlin here, too.
2. Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State: Mullen has the Bulldogs as the No. 1 team in the nation, which is truly remarkable when you realize how difficult it is to do that at Mississippi State in that division. It also certainly does not hurt that he is quite familiar with Meyer, having coached under him as his quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator for eight straight seasons at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida. And this may be the best time for Mullen to leave Mississippi State. His team is full of seniors that will not there after this season. Plus, Heisman-contending quarterback Dak Prescott may declare early for the NFL. When that talent departs, Mullen may not want to keep going toe-to-toe with Alabama, Auburn, and LSU at a school with fewer resources. And, if Mullen does ponder heading elsewhere, rumors have it that Florida, the presumed favorite once Will Muschamp is fired, may not be his destination due to strained relations with athletic director Jeremy Foley. Could Michigan be next on the list? Time will tell.
1. Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco 49ers: Do I really need to explain this one? Harbaugh was raised in Ann Arbor, played high school football in Ann Arbor, and played college football in Ann Arbor under Bo Schembechler. He's experienced an exorbitant amount of success at every stop he has made as a head coach, leading the University of San Diego to two 11-1 seasons, transforming academia-focused Stanford into a championship contender, and taking the San Francisco 49ers to three NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance in three seasons. There were rumors that Harbaugh actually committed to take the Michigan job in 2011 before backing out when he became the hottest coaching commodity in football and NFL teams threw millions of dollars at him that Michigan could not. But there have been recent reports that he and the San Francisco front office are butting heads and that he may be looking elsewhere to have more control of his football team. Michigan would be more than willing to help him out.
6. Tying the last two questions together - who is the top priority according to the fan base to be replaced at this point - Brady Hoke or Dave Brandon? Or do they both equally need to go ASAP?
Unlike my previous two answers, I will make this one short: Dave Brandon needs to go first. Michigan cannot afford to allow Brandon to supervise another coaching search. Putting aside that Brandon was the one who bungled the previous search that led to the hire of Brady Hoke, I cannot see any quality football coach wanting to leave their cushy position to head to the toxic atmosphere that Brandon has created in Ann Arbor. For example, there have been rumors that Jim Harbaugh would not consider a move to Michigan unless Brandon was no longer the athletic director. The first step to cleaning up the toxic fumes is to remove Brandon. And it needs to happen soon.
7. Aside from Zingerman's, which is overpriced and always has a long wait, what other restaurants and bars in Ann Arbor would you recommend for visitors to check out? I went to Ashley's after last year's game and enjoyed it.
Well, it's clear you're making a rookie mistake. The trick to eating at Zingerman's is to call in ahead of time and place your order for pick up. Then you will get to avoid the 30-minute line that bends around the corner. It's genius, I know. (But, yes, it's still overpriced. Shhh.)
I'm probably not the best person to ask this question since I reside in Los Angeles and have not been back to Ann Arbor in almost 2.5 years, which is so depressing. But I'll give it my best shot. If you're looking for quick eats, I would recommend Mr. Spots on State Street and Blimpy Burger, which just reopened at a new location on Ashley Street. Mr. Spots is home to the best hot wings I have ever tasted, but you also can't go wrong with their Philly cheesesteaks. And the burgers at Blimpy are delectable. If you're looking for nicer places to eat, you should check out the row of restaurants on Main Street. Whatever you're in the mood for, you'll find it there.
Regarding bars, Ashley's is a great choice. If you want to mingle with the undergraduate students, it's best to head to South University Avenue, where The Brown Jug, Good Time Charley's, The Blue Leprechaun, and Rick's American Cafe (warning: Rick's, while popular, is not exactly what I would call a classy establishment) are located. If you want to just sit down at a table and have a drink with some friends, Main Street, once again, is the place to go. There are plenty of bars to choose from, but my personal favorite is Conor O'Neill's.
And, to readers that are coming to Ann Arbor for Saturday's game, I hope you have a wonderful time.
8. Alright, football talk is getting depressing, so let's talk hoops. Michigan lost Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, Glenn Robinson III, and most importantly Nik Stauskas from last year's Elite 8 team. What new faces can we expect to see in the mix for the Wolverines this season, and is Caris LeVert the real deal?
So this is what happens when you become a #basketballschool, huh?
I'll answer your second question first: Caris LeVert is the real deal. He was Michigan's second banana last season and was still named to the All-Big Ten second team. And LeVert, who is very young for his class, is expected to still have lots of room for improvement by NBA scouts. Will this mean he will be as efficient or lethal as Nik Stauskas? No, of course not. Very few are. But he still will be one of the Big Ten's best players this season. LeVert has already proven himself to be a proficient scorer, averaging nearly 13 points per game last year, in various ways. He can knock it down from beyond the arc -- he made 40.8 percent of his threes one year ago -- or, in isolation, can slither his way to the tin, where he converted 75 percent of his attempts. LeVert should only improve at the rim as he has grown another inch to 6'7" and bulked up, which should allow him to absorb more contact. And adding weight to his lengthy frame will only help unleash his untapped defensive potential and maintain his status as solid wing defensive rebounder. LeVert still needs to demonstrate he has a mid-range game among other things, but, if there are any questions about whether or not he can handle the load as Michigan's go-to guy, he had no problem doing so in games last season when Stauskas was out of the flow of the offense. LeVert is in store for a big season this year, and it would be a surprise if he was not a member of the All-Big Ten first team when it's all said and done.
The next two Wolverines that will have the biggest impact are point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. and wing Zak Irvin, both of whom are sophomores will plenty of recruiting accolades. Both had complementary roles last season, with Walton, Jr. almost acting as a spot-up shooter while Stauskas ran the offense and Irvin chucking it from deep almost every time he touched the ball. But, this season, they will need to have breakout campaigns and expand their games. Michigan will need Walton, Jr. to get into the offense more often and be one of the main distributors out of the pick and roll, and need Irvin to show he can be more than just a shooter. Both of these developments seem likely, and both are critical to Michigan's success this season.
After LeVert, Walton, Jr., and Irvin, Michigan has a bunch of fresh faces in the front court. Four freshman -- Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle, Kameron Chatman, and D.J. Wilson -- will vie for the majority of the minutes at the 4 and 5 spots. Each player brings a little something different to the table, but how each performs will determine how far this Michigan goes. Their offense will be important, of course, but much of the offense will be generated by LeVert, Walton, Jr., and Irvin. Where these players need to have their biggest impact is on the defensive end of the court. Michigan's defense, especially when it came to defending the rim, was poor last season, and now the Wolverines must replace the contributions of Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, and Mitch McGary. Can these four freshman not only replace those defensive contributions but also improve upon them? It seems like a tall order, but this will be a key to Michigan's season.
9. Speaking of basketball, where do you think the Wolverines will finish in the B1G this season, and how far do you see them getting in the tournament?
This is such a strange year for Big Ten basketball. Wisconsin is the clear-cut favorite, but, after the Badgers, it's a mess of quality teams. Michigan has talented pieces, but the Wolverines have a lot of unproven players that will be earning significant minutes all season, especially in the front court. I would not be surprised if Michigan finished second in the Big Ten. I would not be surprised if Michigan finished seventh, maybe even eighth, in the Big Ten. The parity will be something else. But, if I have learned anything in recent seasons, it is not to doubt John Beilein, who is an offensive mastermind that knows how to develop his players. This is why believe the Wolverines, who benefit from an easier conference slate, will finish in the top three in the Big Ten -- if I must narrow it down, second place -- and will make a third straight Sweet 16 appearance.
10. Prediction time - who wins on Saturday, and by how much?
Can we just have the two basketball teams play on Saturday instead? No? Shucks.
Michigan is an utter mess, but I still think they emerge victorious on Saturday. I would have predicted an Indiana win if Nate Sudfeld was healthy because I do not think Michigan would have been able to keep pace with a Sudfeld-led Hoosiers offense. But a Zander Diamont-led offense is another story. The only thing Michigan's defense needs to worry about is preventing Tevin Coleman from shredding them on the ground. This is not a simple task, but, given that Michigan's run defense has held up most of the season, I think this will be somewhat accomplished. And Michigan's offense should be able to put up points against a porous Indiana defense that has allowed at least 37 points in each of its last three games against Power 5 schools. Will the Wolverines score 37 or more points? No chance. But they'll score just enough to remain unbeaten against Indiana in Ann Arbor since 1967.
Michigan 27, Indiana 20
Thanks again, Drew! The Hoosiers and Wolverines face off from the Big House on Saturday at 3:30pm. Coverage will be on BTN.